Book Reviews

Joy and Pain: Samuel Wanjiru’s RUNNING ON EMPTY Book Review

Book: Running on Empty

Protagonist: Samuel Wanjiru, famed Kenyan marathoner

Rating: 7/10

Comment: A very eye-opening book with great visual aids and precise chapters.


Whenever Kenyan athletes are aired on television as they bear the national flag in international races, I feel proud to be Kenyan. And maybe what is more comforting is the fact that the victory that the athletes enjoy seems to be a unifying factor for a country that is occasionally wrecked along tribal lines.

Despite the joys and triumph athletes enjoy, there is usually very little to tell about their personal lives. Perhaps it’s because they are great at concealing it, or it is painful for them to disclose.

And when I read Samuel Kamau’s biography, Running on Empty, I got a glance at the kind of life the 2008 Olympic Champion led and I drew a lot of conclusions about his cyclic life.


Samuel Wanjiru’s mother must have been the luckiest human being when she found out about her son’s tenacity in training. At a tender age of fifteen, the young Samuel impressed every eye that watched him jog, pace and then tear down the rocky Nyahururu terrain.

It wouldn’t be long before Samuel made his big break in Tokyo in 2002. His coach back then even attested to his determination to “win gold medals”, stating that “His ambitions according to me were quickly realized”(p.51)

wanjiru in tokyo

His zeal and desire led to his impressive debut in international marathon races, beginning with a third-place finish behind two seasoned runners (p.63). It was inevitable that he was going to be a successful marathoner.


For such a grueling call, running long-distance races and marathons seemed to have drawn a character of perseverance from Wanjiru.

He had to go through rigorous training in Japan under Coach Watanabe, where he recounts that the food and the climate were taking a toll on him. Perhaps the pressure put on young Samuel’s shoulders of being the trailblazer of the next generation of marathoners in Kenya pushed him to want to “be the best marathoner that Kenya had ever known” (p.79)


As the book notes, “the pace was murderous and setting a new record was still a possibility” (p.83). Unfortunately, Wanjiru came in second to a man who had won the London Marathon three times before then. What mettle!


As a budding athlete, fame was unavoidably going to follow Samuel regardless of his wishes. And maybe this is what invoked the kind of reckless living only seen in fame-drunk people.


Samuel began heavy drinking and violent outbursts towards his wife, Triza. It is noted that he “wanted her to scream” and “would be satisfied if he smelt her fear”(p.87). She always had her suspicions about Samuel’s unfaithfulness in their marriage, and I suppose that is what later led to disputes over property rites after Samuel’s death.

The poor chap even went ahead to party excessively to the point that he bunked on training sessions. This obviously led to his gaining of weight and in the 2009 Lisbon Marathon, he couldn’t break his own world record let alone finish first.

It is sad that he “exploded without proper reason” and was regularly involved in nasty incidents (p.154-155). God knows what was evoking such actions from the track star.


With talent came money. And huge sums of it, to say the least. It’s not surprising that he had to give back to his family, friends and the community that he’d grown in.


“Wanjiru had a big heart and wanted the best for everyone”, his lawyer Wahome stated, drawing attention to some of the developmental projects the runner had foreseen.

He provided clothes and shoes to the athletic club members and even organized races and sponsor deals for some of his training partners. Back in Tokyo, he intended to start a training camp where future champions would be bred but the plan vanished apparently. The motives did not.

Given his up-and-down kind of life, Samuel’s philanthropy made him an icon and nobody would talk ill of him. The town of Ol Kalou owes most of its buildings and projects to the fallen runner.


In spite of Wanjiru’s fetes and wonders on the race track, his personal life which had remained a mystery during his formative days as a runner finally came to the fore. And not in the brightest of ways, I must say.

His rocky relationship with his wife Triza imploded into extra-marital affairs. Not to mention his drinking problem (“his penchant for beer and brandy”) which would later lead to his deathly fall from his house balcony during an altercation with his wife.

The once-famed Samuel Wanjiru had allowed the glory that came with being a national icon take a grip on his life. And even after his death, there emerged conspiracies that his wife had cast a spell on him. This led to a court tussle which lasted forever and waned mysteriously so.

At the age of 27, he died with so much potential unearthed. He could have won so many more medals for Kenya, instigated way more projects in Nyahururu and even become an icon and leader at the helm of the Sports Ministry.

Sadly, all this is impossible. He surely did run on empty.

Did you enjoy the book review on Samuel Wanjiru? If you did, then you will definitely love the rest. Make sure you browse through and read the awesome lives of awesome people through my lens. 🙂


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